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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

What Makes A Person An Ideal JET?

I was going to entitle this How Green Was My Valley and then see what I would write.. instead, after writing it all I went with the above title.

I have no idea, as I start this particular blog, just what it is I want to say or even where I am going with it. Scary and exciting... it's a metaphor for my life, I suppose.

I'll start with the comment from my buddy Vince who notes that right about now... there are a score of people applying to the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme trying to get in... mostly people who have been over-achievers throughout their brief life - and more power to you, if that's you. People who have always wanted to go to Japan... to see the world... who have been studying the Japanese language and culture... who want to meet new people and fug exotic people.

But that was never me.

I had never wanted to do anything more in my life than to just survive another day without either wanting to kill myself or kill everyone else.

Okay... that was probably just teen angst talking, but I certainly did feel a lot of anger raging inside myself... anger at everyone... anger at myself. 

But then I grew up. It's funny how when you think everything sucks, you discover that whatever doesn't kill you makes me stronger.

I'm pretty damn strong now... 

But before?

It's possible I was strong before... but even now... I have a tough time believing it

It sounds quite strange for me to even admit to such nonsense about death and destruction regarding my little world at this point in time in my life - now 20 years removed from living and teaching in Japan... especially when I'm still writing about it after over four years of blogging and one-million readers later... but there's always some sort of divine plan that seems to exist, even if one isn't aware of it.

I'm not even religious anymore... if I ever was. 

When I was back there in seminary school... just kidding. When I was younger, so much younger than today, I didn't always uses lines from rock songs to make my point... though I sure as hell believed that there was indeed a rock song that could describe every single mood a person was in.

It was why I used to create a diary entry on this blog with a rock song title - and may, come the new year, begin doing it again... or maybe something different.

But... back to business... when I somehow got into university, no one was more surprised than myself.

I had spent my entire six-year high school life being told I was either a failure or I was going to fail - and that was by my so-called peers, teachers and guidance counselors. I think my parents even began to have their doubts that I was ever going to amount to anything at all...

Six years of high school? Yup. In Ontario, here in Canada, we did five years of high school... grades 9-13, with that 13th year essentially being akin to a year of university (don't you believe it!).

I was young when I began Grade 9... heck... I was four-years-old when I began Grade 1...    

Being 12-years-old when I began Grade 9 - not even in puberty yet, still just under 5'-0" tall and maybe 100 lbs if I had eaten something and not taken a crap, I was ripe for being picking on - and that's not even taking into account that I wore glasses, my mother dressed me funny, I had a brown complexion (parents from India) in a very white community and, in order to forgo having to take French, I deigned NOT to attend the local Catholic high school where all my friends were, and instead opted for the local public high school where I knew virtually no one going in.

In hind sight, it might have been worth failing French for five years to have had friends I already knew that first year.

But I didn't... instead... I had the worst year (s) and class schedule imaginable... out of nine periods and eight classes a day, with lunch being offered in periods four, five and six, I had lunch in period 6 -where NONE of the people I had met in my classes had lunch. ZERO. I ate lunch by myself every day in Grade 9. A tuna sandwich and a Coke. Breakfast was a glass of Nestle's chocolate milk powder in milk that I would pretend was Carnation Instant Breakfast.

We weren't poor, BUT my parents did leave for work before me - so I got my own breakfast and my grandfather would make one up for my seven-year junior brother... who as a five-year-old, would walk to school by himself... try doing that now, eh?

Anyhow... my life at school was one of torment, as I was quickly given a nasty nickname by an equally geeky, but two-year-older kid in gym class... and the name stuck.

The only thing that saved me from total ignominy was the fact that I was actually good at sports (and gym) and music... which didn't win me any friends with the jocks, but at least I had some sort of kindred spirit availed to me.

The worst thing that happened to me in Grade 9 was when my parents had to go out for the evening, and were reluctant to leave me in charge of my sick little brother... so they (heavens!) called a baby sitter.

A nice enough young lady... but imagine my surprise the next day in school when I sat at a table at lunch and noticed my baby-sitter (from Grade 13) eating lunch with her friends.

Cat out of the freaking bag, I never went back to eat in the lunch room - finding little nooks and crannies within the school's building to eat by myself - even more alone as I shunned anyone before they could shun me.

Call me weird... but even NOW at work - despite being the social butterfly whom everybody knows and loves - I still prefer eating lunch by myself... though I know I don't really want to. Old habits, I suppose.

That baby-sitting thing was in October of Grade 9 - and I only had five years less a month more of school.

Now, wait... I did say I did six years of high school right? Well... when everyone seemed to be conspiring against me, I collapsed and gave up... beginning in Grade 9, I never studied once or cracked a book and hated every single minute of school.

Girls? Hell... I could have run naked and on fire through the school and no one would have noticed. With few exceptions, no one from high school would know me now... and that's fine by me.

The final straw was when I skipped a week of school while in Grade 12 and was finally caught on my 16th birthday, and was given the pleasant surprise of one week's suspension and the caveat that I would have to write all the final exams... no big deal... I would have had to do that any way.

Grade 12 finished, and I had failed three classes - English, Chemistry and Math... and was told I could take a summer school class to bring up the grade of one of those classes, or repeat the entire 12th grade.

What the hell... if I repeated, I would finally be in a class of my legitimate peers. People my own age. So... with lots of urging from my parents and many tears from a beaten down self, I agreed.

In Grade 12 - Volume 2, I had my best year in school since Grade 4... Passing with flying colors... even English.... and that's even with me taking Grade 13 classes of music and physical education (Hey, Rob!), where Rob and I taught phys ed to a class of elementary school kids as part of the grade... I did better than Rob only because the teacher liked me and seemed to have it in for him and his mom... but truthfully, Rob was the one with the better teaching plan.

Failing English... how strange that the inability to quote Shakespeare would be my undoing... when even now 30 years or so later I can quote lines with ease. I suppose I have a retroactive memory. I'm certainly better at long-term memories than short-term. I could probably pass Chemistry now without studying... it's all coming back to me!  

Anyhow... Grade 13 came, and because of my past history, I was encouraged by a guidance counselor to not even bother applying to university, but to instead apply for the community colleges - considered a step down from university.

But screw him... it cost $50 per university application - up to a total of three - so I applied and was accepted into all three universities, choosing the one that was closest to home to save money (and to not have to leave the comforts of home).

While in university, I took night school classes at a nearby community college for marketing and advertising, because I wanted more than anything to write TV commercials. Or be an archeologist... 

I wasted five years in university, as I discovered the joys of drinking and trying but not dating women... but I ended up with a a piece of paper... a university degree that sits framed in a pile not three feet from where I write this... and then I applied to community college (to be in the same school as a girl I liked)...

I was actually one credit shy of graduating from the community college night school program when I began the day school college program in journalism. I had no time for night school as I was co-coaching a woman's soccer team with Rob, and teaching piano to eight students (one adult), and excelling in journalism school... (I failed English?! in high school ?!) where the Dean knew who I was, and it wasn't because I was a loser... it was because he actually seemed to respect what I was doing even though I busted open a story about asbestos in the school's insulation (It is what it is, he told me)... he was also impressed that I coached the college's woman's soccer team... 

Excelling? Yes... writing and journalism seemed to touch my soul. I should mention that everyone in the journalism program (and at least one person a month even now - yesterday, included) has suggested that I have a voice built for radio. But radio didn't pay as much as newspaper and TV, and I'm not pretty enough for TV.

I always have looked back at my university time as a wasted opportunity, but it is what it is. I got the degree and it helped mature me slightly enough to do well in journalism school... and I needed both to get into the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme... something I only applied to because, like college, I was following a girl trying to get laid.

But I got into the JET Programme - the girl didn't. And I didn't get laid until days after I arrived in Japan at that time.

My journalism school experience of running the school newspaper and even putting one out while the school was on strike, served me well. That university degree was an ugly necessity, too. So too was all that teaching experience: teaching piano (and clarinet) and coaching youth soccer... and even that one year of teaching phys ed to elementary school kids. Oh yeah... the college Dean also wrote one hell of a nice letter on my behalf that I presented as part of my JET application. Thanks Squee. And the "late" Doris, too.

Being a youthful journalist and coach and teacher also taught me much needed communication skills that helped me convince the JET Programme that I might be someone unique in their fold.

What also helped was that although I had almost given up on myself in high school like the guidance counselor, 'almost' wasn't the same as giving up 'completely'. Because I didn't.

And neither should you. If you are considering applying to the JET Programme - go for it. Don't get in once - try again. Or... try other avenues to get across the pond.

You don't need to be the brainy type who excelled in school at every turn. It helps, I'm sure, but really, in my case, it ... it hinders. Yes, I have brains... but despite being a couple of points shy of actually being a genius on the IQ scale, I never really fully used it. Or at least not academically.

I found that once I was in Japan, being normal and part of the teaching team counted for more. I didn't need to show that I was smarter than the smarties or tougher than the toughies... I needed to show that even though I was a gaijin ( a foreigner) I was just like the regular Japanese folk around me. There was nothing more important to me than being a regular person to the Japanese.

It didn't mean I had to be a sexist, lecherous male - though I'm sure I was from time to time as I screwed my way through half the female adult population in the Japanese city I lived... but I did need to be the type of person who could describe an ideal way of life outside of Japan... whereby women are treated more as equals (they aren't treated as equals in Canada or the US, no matter what the laws say), where kids can still have fun and be serious at the same time... where life can be interrupted by living.... 

For me... Japan was easy... I could relate to damn near anyone... mostly because I had been everyone.

I found that since I had struggled, fallen and picked myself up without losing sight of who I really was, I also had a far better understanding of what it was like to be a student in Japan. I could empathize not just with the kids would did well in school and English classes, but with those lovable 'losers' who were just as I was 10 years previous to me arriving in Japan... in fact... I was that lovable 'loser' ... one of them... until I arrived in Japan.

And... I was determined to make a difference.

Over the next few blogs, I'm going to detail some interactions between myself and some of the students and teachers and people of Japan... and how I hopefully either gave them hope, or straightened them up to live a wonderful rife.

I'll never know, of course, if I succeeded... but, in my heart, I know I made a difference.

Nowadays, I'm neither rich nor poor... probably closer to being poor than rich... closer to dying than being born... unhealthier rather than healthy... and yet happier more than unhappy... but it doesn't matter.

It's getting up every morning and doing your best.

So... coming up next... an example of me doing that.

As for the headline... what makes an ideal JET? I guess that's up to the people you help(ed).

Andrew Joseph

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